The original recording of "The Coloring Song" is very simple; like coloring a picture of Jesus with your crayons. This version is panoramic, almost cinematic… like painting a huge mural of Jesus on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. I love the way John's vocals are arranged to build and twist and turn in this version. I think the old version is beautiful (and a classic) because of its simplicity, and I love it because of that, but this one is beautiful for its expressiveness. And that is a running theme on this album; by and large, the new interpretations are radically different from the old ones, but are completely valid in a completely different way.
A real surprise on this album is this new version of "Beyond Belief". The old version is celebratory and fun, but this new version is calm, descriptive, and BIG. It tells us what is in store for us in our Christian life in a way that seems to have… well, gravity. I think the strings in this version are lovely, and there are some real serious chordal surprises. It makes me think more about the journey, and about how wonderful it is to walk with God, than the original recording, which makes me think more about the goal itself. Again, both very valid interpretations of the material, and both have now become favorites of mine. In contrast, this recording of "Dance", to my ears, seems danceier than the original. Don't get me wrong; it's not going to be making it to the club circuit any time soon. But it kind of makes me want to get up and try a few steps myself, where to me the original is a little slow in tempo for anything other than maybe jumping up and down. (Is that "dancing"?)
My wife does not like the chorus of this recording of "He Came, He Saw" (and yes, He still conquered, although the CD insert no longer says so!) The music gallops along through the first verse just fine, but the vocal arrangement on the chorus is kind of… I guess odd would be one way to say it. The chords are tightly packed, almost like playing piano with the palms of your hands. I kind of enjoy it (in fact, this song is the most likely one on the album to stick in my head all day), but she doesn't care for it. Something we both agree on, though, is that the reworking of the rhythms on the second verse really lend to understanding the words. And in fact, the acoustic nature of these arrangements lends itself to understanding many of the lyrics more easily; there are at least two lines on the CD that I never understood in the original incarnations that are loud and clear to me on this album.
In contrast, my wife really does like this rendition of "Beat the System". For me it took a little more getting used to; old-time Petra fans seem to have a hard time divorcing themselves from the original rhythms and melodies of their favorites and enjoying these as brand new songs, and I had that problem with this one at first. Cathy likes it because it sounds almost Middle Eastern; it makes her think of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. The string arrangements really do make it sound almost like a movie score, and now that I've gotten used to the similarities and differences from the original (initially this song sounded to me like someone thinking about the old melody and trying hard to sing something different), I really do like this one (except for that heaving "Wise Up, Rise Up" right before the last chorus… John, what were you THINKING? ;-> )
"Praying Man" has really been dipped in a little barbecue sauce for this album… the original album, Wake-Up Call, has a Southern-rock sound, but this song was more straight-ahead rock on that disc. Enigmatically, on Double Take it has the harmonica and the cowbell and the whole nine yards! This version of the song might have even fit better on the original album than the version that is on the original album! The small omission of some of the lyrics (the original has background vocal lines interspersed between the lead vocal lines of each verse, and on this one they elected to not perform those lines) does not detract from this song at all. The other song from that album, "Just Reach Out", in this incarnation reminds me vaguely of "We Need Jesus" from Petra Praise 2: We Need Jesus, although if you compare them side by side they are not that similar. This arrangement is maybe even more beautiful than the original.
I have heard this version of "Creed" criticized for being a little too slow. The original starts off sort of slow and eerie, and then explodes with a wall of guitars and drums; this version starts off sort of slow and mellow, and then… well, then it stays sort of slow and mellow. To my ears, though, this recording has more gravity to it; the strings lend it a sort of mythical quality that brings out the importance of what the lyrics (an adaptation of The Apostles' Creed) say: "I believe in God the Father, maker of Heaven and Earth/and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, I believe in the Virgin Birth…") On the other hand, although this version of "This Means War" contains wonderful guitar work and is beautifully orchestrated, the peacefulness of the music and the threat inherent in the lyrics just don't seem to work well together. I like to think of it as standing outside of your army tent thinking about the battle (which will occur tomorrow), where the original is more like fighting that battle. This would have been a stronger song if the orchestra had been used to build and build all through the song, painting a picture (more like "The Coloring Song" does earlier in the album) instead of staying mostly the same from start to finish. The standout section of this recording of the song is the battle chant in the middle: "This is the war that we've already won/The victory is ours through God's only Son…"
There are two completely new songs on this album: "The Longing", which was co-written by Joel Hanson of the almost legendary Christian band PFR, and "Breathe In", which was written by Petra lead guitarist Pete Orta; Pete also handled lead vocals on the song. These two songs are completely different, but both of them are wonderful; "The Longing" seems to express in the third person a bit of the mission of Petra, to reach people whose hearts are longing for Jesus (read: all of us). "Breathe In", on the other hand, expresses in the first person the joy and strength that the Child of God experiences through seeking God, as well as the desire to be with Him on His return. Pete Orta does an excellent job on vocals, lending a new sound to Petra that resembles Jars of Clay or Caedmon's Call more than late 80's and early 90's big-hair rocking Petra. If I've ever smelled a radio hit, this one will be it.
This album is something that is not to be missed. It is a totally different side of Petra than we've ever seen before; it is a bit more artsy, a bit more acoustic, and at the same time a bit more progressive than they have been. It is also some of their best quality work in many years. Long-time Petra fans will have to check their expectations at the door, though, or risk being alienated from an experience that will lead them to a better understanding of some of Petra's most memorable songs.